Tech and Science

Meta says it thwarted a massive disinformation campaign related to Chinese law enforcement

Meta says it thwarted a massive disinformation campaign related to Chinese law enforcement

Facebook and Instagram parent company Meta said Tuesday it disrupted a disinformation campaign linked to Chinese law enforcement, which the social media company described as the “world's largest known cross-platform covert influence operation.”

The company has deleted more than 7,700 accounts and 930 pages on Facebook. The influencer network generated positive posts about China, with a particular focus on positive comments about China's Xinjiang province, where the government's handling of the Uyghur minority has led to international sanctions.

The network has also tried to spread negative comments about the US and disinformation in multiple languages ​​about the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, Meta said. The network has been or is present on almost every popular social media platform, including Medium; Reddit; tumblr; youtube; and X, formerly known as Twitter, according to the company.

Meta began searching its own platforms for signs of Chinese interference after reports in 2022 indicated that a Chinese government-linked disinformation campaign had targeted a human rights NGO.

“These operations are big, but they're clumsy, and what we're not seeing is a real sign that they're building an authentic audience on our platform or elsewhere on the web,” Ben Nimmo, Meta's global head of threat intelligence, told Eamon from CNBC Javers.

Meta-researchers have been able to link this latest disinformation network to a previous influence campaign in 2019. Code called Spammouflage.

“In summary, we judge spamouflage to be the largest cross-platform covert influence known to date,” Meta said in its report quarterly threat report. “Although the individuals behind this activity attempted to hide their identities and coordination, our investigation found links to individuals linked to Chinese law enforcement.”

Meta also identified and disrupted other operations and released a more detailed analysis of a Russian disinformation campaign it identified shortly after the war in Ukraine began in 2022.

The disruptions precede what is likely to be a contentious election cycle. Concerns about the role of influence campaigns in past elections led social media platforms, including Meta, to adopt stricter guidelines on both the type of political content allowed and how that content was labeled.

Meta-users have been hit by influencer campaigns in the past, most notably the 2016 Cambridge Analytica scandal.

But this disinformation network, while productive, is not effective, meta cybersecurity executives said in a conference call. The campaign's pages had a combined total of more than 500,000 followers, most of whom were inauthentic and hailed from Bangladesh, Brazil and Vietnam.

A group identifying themselves as China-U.S. companies wait to see Chinese President Xi Jinping's motorcade ahead of his meeting with former U.S. President Donald Trump at Palm Beach International Airport in West Palm Beach, Florida April 6 to visit in 2017.

Joe Skipper | Reuters

According to the threat report, the operators posted headlines that made little sense in the context of an original post, or shared identical content on multiple social media platforms in multiple languages.

“These surgeries are really big and very persistent. In particular, the Chinese operation worked on more than 50 different internet platforms and tried to spread content all over the internet,” Nimmo told Javers. “And it's persistent. They keep trying. We've seen them evolve.”

A duplicate and incorrect headline identified by meta-researchers was labeled “Great tip! Suspicious seafood from US received at Huanan Seafood Market before outbreak. This comment has been reproduced in eight different languages, including Russian and Latin.

“The truth is: Fort Detrick is where COVID-19 originated,” read another false headline identified by meta-researchers. There is no evidence for either claim. Numerous scientific studies have identified a Wuhan market as the epicenter for most of the first Covid-19 cases.

The campaign also sought to spread disinformation about accused billionaire Guo Wengui, who fled China in 2014 before being arrested by US authorities in 2023 on fraud and money laundering charges. “Guo Wengui wins the best traitor award in the United States,” read one headline.

Meta researchers found that Steve Bannon, the former Trump administration official and Wengui's close associate, was also a target of China's disinformation efforts. “Bannon is no longer safe from the law,” read one headline.

“Guo Wengui, Guo Wengui, Bannon, Bannon, Yan Limeng, the suffering of the ant gang will be fruitless,” read another headline.

In this court sketch, Guo Wengui, an exiled Chinese businessman with ties to former Donald Trump adviser Steve Bannon, sits in a New York courthouse accused of leading a complex conspiracy to steal Guo's online followers for more Than Cheat $1 Billion, March 15, 2023.

Jane Rosenberg | Reuters

Meta was also able to find “unusual” hashtags associated with the network.

For example, in April 2023, federal law enforcement identified a secret Chinese foreign police station in Lower Manhattan. The Chinese government has “established a secret physical presence in New York City to monitor and intimidate dissidents and critics of its government,” said Matt Olsen, deputy attorney general for national security said then. The Times of London also reported the presence of a similar outpost in England. In an apparent response, the disinformation campaign began posting content with the hashtag #ThisispureslanderthatChinahasestablishedasecretPolicedepartmentinEngland.

CNBC found that the hashtag was still circulating on X as of Sunday night, and tweets included a link to a YouTube video that disputed the Times' coverage. It was not immediately clear if X had taken steps to destroy the network of influence on its own platform.

X did not immediately respond to CNBC's request for comment.

“During our research, we realized that we could connect all of these different clusters together,” Nimmo told CNBC. “And for the first time, we've been able to trace this activity to people associated with law enforcement in China.”

Meta's cybersecurity team says it is ready to identify and destroy more networks of influence in the run-up to the 2024 election.

“If we can see some kind of pivot to talk more directly about US political issues, we can recognize that early on and counteract that,” said Nimmo. “There will always be more work to do – we must always remain vigilant. But that is our job. That's what we do and we will continue to do that.”

— CNBC's Eamon Javers and Bria Cousins ​​contributed to this report.

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